A surprise in store

There are times when our plants cause me to do a double-take. This happened today.

I often take some steps back to view an area either from above, from a bedroom window or from the roof; or from a distance, as from the back doorstep looking over the raised beds. It helps to see the garden in perspective and to spot things I might not see from close up.

So I was astonished to find that our lime tree, seen from the vantage point of the back door, has a small crop of fruit on a section overhanging raised bed 1. As I always have my head down to work on the bed, I hadn’t actually noticed the fruit above.

The limes are beautiful: small, round and glowing a brilliant green on this most ungainly tree:

This is a curious development. I can’t remember when the young tree was planted as I didn’t keep an accurate record (doh!) Perhaps some six or seven years ago. Since then, it has produced no fruit, although there have been a few flowers in each of the past two or three springs.

A bit impatiently – after all, young trees need possibly five years to settle in and mature before they can be expected bear fruit – I resorted to blandishments. Why? I had read in Helena Attlee’s wonderful book The Land where Lemons Grow that it may work to lay the law down to citrus trees and show them who’s boss.

In an anecdote taken from the Book of Agriculture of Ibn al-Awam, a medieval Arab text of the almanac sort, she relates that if a citrus tree fails to bear fruit, then two workmen should approach it with an axe, and openly discuss in front of the tree how, if it does not produce a crop in the coming year, it will be cut down. “That generally did the trick,according to Ibn al-Awam”, she adds, “and he was obviously right.”

Attlee cites as modern-day evidence a heavily-laden mandarin tree growing on an estate in Liguria where this approach had been tried and had achieved dramatic results.

So I did the same with our lime tree in the spring. Tired of being jabbed by its horrendous thorns whenever I worked on RB1, and fed up with its straggly shape and blackened, unhealthy leaves, I told the tree in no uncertain terms that either it bore fruit this year – or else! I may even have given it a kick – the veggie’s version of the axe treatment.

Hey presto, or abracadabra, or whatever words you like, we now have limes.

And not just limes, either. Right now, our orange tree that turned out to be predominantly, but not exclusively, an “Italian” lemon (as the Egyptians call citrus trees bearing the big lemons, though none is native to Italy) with a feeble branch of orange grafted onto the rootstock has its usual wonderful crop of superb, juicy fruit in all sorts of colours from green to orange, though they are still lemons.

Some branches are so heavy with fruit that we are supporting them by arrangement with the guava tree nearby.

And the kumquat tree also promises another superb harvest:

Ahead lies a period of intensive marmalade-making, a laborious but rewarding process that will take me back to idyllic days in Sicily last autumn, when we visited organic citrus estates and tasted so many glorious, mouthwatering types of marmellata (bitter or Seville orange; blood orange; grapefruit; lemon).

I wish I could grow bergamot as well. Not that I have tried – I have never seen a tree in Egypt, and don’t know if it is ever grown here.

Finally, a wonderful fruit that developed slowly – oh so slowly – over the summer. Our one and only Keet mango:

Keet mango 9.17

There were three or four fruit on the tree; all but one failed. We waited months for it to ripen, finally enjoying our mouthwatering mini-mango-feast at the end of September. Worth the wait!

* The Land where Lemons Grow – Helena Attlee, pub. by Penguin Books. The best book on citrus fruit I know, and a wonderful tour of Italy from Liguria and Lake Garda to eastern Sicily.

 

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Making merry (and mischief)

The bugs have been having a ball in our garden this year. I guess gardening organically means that, for all the abundance of wildlife in the garden and therefore of natural predators, there’s also an overwhelming buildup of pests.

It didn’t help that I was away for nearly two months from mid-July. Or that I’m not particularly stringent about “hygiene” in the garden. If the idea is to let nature have her way –  with a bit of guidance – why obsess about collecting up leaves and “cleaning” the beds? It’s a word I hear constantly from the gardeners: The verb nadafa (to clean) is over-used, and needs to be, er, swept away.

There have been some unexpected encounters. In the spring, a praying mantis in the big basil (Ocimum basilicum) near the balcony; more recently the garden has been alive with crazy jumping grasshoppers/crickets (they love the piles of drying materials between the raised beds) and one magnificent locust:

 

Yesterday, as the gardeners began trimming our hedge of Ficus nitida (Indian laurel), dense with dead wood, infested leaves and dust, down came a stem with a truly beautiful caterpillar attached. Magnificent in the finest shades of green camouflage, he seemed to have meandered straight off the toadstool in “Alice in Wonderland”, leaving behind his sheesha:

Caterpillar 9.17

Astonished by his glorious colouring, I took some photos and then popped him in with the clippings to ride off with the waste – giving him a fighting chance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that: I would love to see him transformed into a full-fledged butterfly.

The overgrown borders have turned into the usual haven for snails. Wherever the perennials are dense, usually under cover of frangipani (Plumeria acuminata), hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis) and the like, it’s damp enough for snails to make merry and multiply like there’s no tomorrow.

The explorer climbing up the rose (Rosa spp.) is behaving true to form: Snails are often found at a considerable height on anything from hibiscus to the walls of the house! The damage is limited in the borders but much more problematic in the raised beds, where they hide along the sides and in corners, and behind stones or bricks used to batten netting down.

Also hiding in the borders are vast tribes of woodlice, and even some small, dark cockroaches – all of them frantically burrowing into the soil the moment I raise the cover over their heads.

Among the truly spectacular casualties this summer was the chard in RB2, the culprits most likely a herd of rampant caterpillars:

Chard destroyed 9.17

The damage was so comprehensive, it made me laugh. I cut the skeletons down, and fed the roots with compost to encourage new growth, while taking care to cover the bed well with netting. We shall see…

As usual, however, it is the mealy bugs that are wreaking havoc in all directions, especially on the roses, plumbago (P. capensis), Indian laurel and some fruit trees.

One of the lime trees, the kumquat and the Italian lemon tree are all affected not only by mealy bugs but also by other pests that leave sticky webs around the stems, leaves and fruit, as here on the kumquat.

Kumquat 9.17

This could be scale, as it appears to be associated with the patches of white, containing insects, on the stem. Not so much of a problem previously, but quite obvious this year.

To combat the fruit flies, we stripped the guava tree of leaves and immature fruit early in the summer. It should flower again soon and produce fruit in the winter, when there are no flies – but, meanwhile, the pests moved on to the lemon tree nearby and did their best to break through the defences:

Lemons under attack 9.17

According to Eric Moore*, the Middle East is a “relatively pest- and disease-free environment.” for gardeners. Well – not in my experience! I can’t accept spraying with chemicals, so I will have to do a lot more to encourage the birds, lizards, beetles and spiders that might help to combat them. And be more conscientious about cleaning out the infected stuff…

* Gardening in the Middle East – Eric Moore – pub. Stacey International

 

Pith and skin

It’s the season of pomegranates:

Now for a confession: these are not from our garden. How I wish they were! Nor are they organic and naturally grown; I ordered some from our organic supplier last week but none was in our basket, which probably means either the farm ran out that day or the fruit didn’t meet the standard required. So these are mainstream, and probably laced with chemicals.

But we do have a pomegranate tree. We bought it earlier this year from a nurseryman at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. It was beautiful, a fair size tree that took some manoeuvring into the back of our 4×4.

All was not as it seemed, however, and we should have been more careful. On closer inspection later on, we found the tree had evidently been taken out of its home bed and crammed unkindly into a pot that was far too small: a last-minute dash for the Flower Show, I suppose. Our gardener took a lot of trouble to cut the pot and loosen it around the root ball, without actually taking it away, so he could keep the roots intact as he lowered the tree into position in the ground.

Transplanting 2

Since then, I’d like to say the tree has gone from strength to strength. But that isn’t quite true. Pomegranates don’t like to be over-watered; but turning off the nearby irrigation spray has meant it hardly gets any, so we have to step in with hand-watering. In addition, the leaves have been attacked by pests (caterpillars? Grasshoppers/locusts?) Mainly, however, I think it is in shock from the transplanting process, and needs lots of TLC.

Still, the tree produced some lovely bright orange flowers in early summer and then a few baby pomegranates appeared on cue:

They then mostly dropped off. So we are left with… one!

Pomegranate in the bag 9.17This one is well and truly “in the bag”. Hoping to ward off the fruit flies which plague our guavas, get into the pears, and have even tried boring through the thick skin of our lemons (a step too far even for these pests, but they’ve given it a good shot), my husband covered our one remaining pomegranate with a plastic bag. This may be counter-productive: plastic is hardly an ideal environment for fruit and I doubt if it is helping the ripening process. Besides, the slit in the side, to prevent condensation from building, may do precisely what we don’t want – let the flies in.

You may wonder what’s so special about a fruit with a carapace-like outer casing, that is tart enough to make the eyes smart? All pith and skin, you might say – oh, and with seeds that wedge themselves into every available gap in the teeth.

I think the trees work better as ornamental additions to the garden rather than as sources of fruit. They were beautiful in Sicily both in the streets of Ortigia and, loaded with fruit, in the garden of Casa Cuseni, Taormina. They were also to be found ornamenting some lovely ceramics:

And while it’s one thing to battle your way through the skin, fiddle around with pulling away the pith, and then try to keep the seeds from skittering all over the kitchen as you extract them, it really is a delight to use the juicy little seeds for some adventures in Mediterranean cuisine.

I love them scattered across salads, best of all with sizzling halloumi cheese. Sweeter seeds can be added to summer fruit salads, with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. Pomegranate juice isn’t my thing, but it is popular in Egypt. Meanwhile, in Iran, it is used in savoury dishes to add bite to a sauce: In her encyclopaedic Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden gives the recipe for Faisinjan, chicken or duck with a finely-tuned sauce that balances pomegranate and lemon juice with just enough sugar to take the edge off the tartness.

So we’ll wait to see what happens with our one remaining fruit. And if it fails, I have other ways to enjoy them: A favourite jacket, the work of an Indian designer, features a pattern of pomegranates… Pomegranates and textiles? Ah, that’s another story…

Pomegranate jacket

 

 

A mini vendange, and other fruit

We have just picked our first ever bunch of grapes!

It weighs in at just 100g, the fruit small but juicy and pleasantly sweet. Above all, they are our own produce, free from chemicals – nothing of any kind has been sprayed on/applied to them – ripened in the sun. Birds permitting, we may get some more, although none of the bunches left on the vine, which is climbing on the wooden frame over the garage, is as large as the first one.

The story of our fruit crop this year is one of “minor triumphs” with the notable exception of the lemon tree (another excellent harvest on the way) and the kumquat, where masses of blossom surround the few fruit remaining from last year:

I picked the first lemon yesterday. Admittedly they are far too small to be useful for juice, but I like to take the odd one when I need lemon rind in a recipe: I know the fruit are untreated and the peel is perfectly safe once rinsed.

As for the kumquats, it will be interesting to see what sort of crop we get this year after last year’s bounty. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have a rest from marmalade-making…

Just now, the yellow plums are ripening on the tree, and – assuming the birds leave them alone – we are back now to the “minor triumph” category. We’ve never had more than a couple from this tree (and none from the red plum), but this year we may get about a dozen. Soft and juicy, still warm from the sun, they are delicious.

We have counted four pears on one of our trees. It will be a while before they are ready to eat. The second tree, which I was attempting to espalier along the green fence, has been given her freedom and allowed to grow tall again: Let’s hope for some fruit from her next year.

Going down in terms of numbers, but up a good deal in size, there are two beautiful mangoes on the way:

The tree, var. Keet, is small and compact, nothing like the giants commonly planted incredibly close to blocks of flats all around Cairo.  Bought from an organic supplier at the Spring Flower Show a couple of years ago, and planted rather too close to the hedge, this is the first time the tree has produced fruit. We can’t wait: Mango, in so many different forms (a thick and luscious juice; cubed and eaten with ice-cream; sliced and used to decorate cakes; never, ever made into chutney) is the taste of summer in Egypt.

In fact, none of our fruit trees has been in longer than 5 years, so the crop we are likely to get this year is probably about what we should expect. There are no fruit on the satsuma tree (resting after last year’s superb effort) and none on the lime trees either.

Hopefully there will be another good crop from the date palm. You may recall that we had some wonderful red (Zaghloul) dates in 2016, and it looks as if this year will be good:

Early datesIt’s early days yet, however, and we are concerned about the number of dates that have already fallen to the ground while still small and green. It’s unclear what the loss signifies – unless it is related to the exceptionally hot weather over the last few days.

Also developing: the guavas.

Baby guavas

We had one excellent crop two years ago, after spraying with Malathion. Almost all were spoilt by fruit fly last year (no spraying). This year, we are trying fly-traps to protect the young fruit, but opinion is divided on their effectiveness. I shall be sorry if we don’t have any fruit but we can’t risk using chemical spray, for the sake of our bees.

Now for two complete surprises: a fig and a melon!

I had given up on the fig tree, and discovered the lone fruit by accident when pruning some basil nearby; the melon is on a ‘spare’ plant thrown into a pot of surplus tomato seedlings and left by the compost bins. The melon plants carefully transferred into the raised beds are producing…nothing!

Last word, however, has to go to the real stars of the Jasmine Garden: The bees, and yesterday’s harvest from the hives on the roof – gorgeous, golden, poly-floral honey:

Honey 6.17

 

 

Sheer indulgence

We came back from downtown Cairo last week not with a few books from my favourite store, nor stocks of organic food from the bio-shop, nor even gifts of locally made soaps, skin creams and cotton towels for family and friends overseas.

Rather, we had a boot full of plants, a bag of pepper and aubergine seedlings, and a pomegranate tree stretching almost from boot to windscreen. It was rather fun turning corners, negotiating roundabouts and getting through traffic on the flyover all the while holding on to the tree with love, trying to keep her steady.

The pomegranate is one of my favourite trees, not only for the bright green softness of the young leaves, nor the slightly whimsical form of the branches. I love them also for their luminous orange flowers, and for the strange beauty of the fruit.

We had spent a productive morning at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. Armed with a list of items we needed, we were remarkably successful in tracking them all down, from traps to deal with fruit fly (to protect our guava crop) to bedding plants as gifts for relatives.

But there’s much more to the event than this. It’s sheer indulgence to take the time to wander round and enjoy the show, set in the once glorious – though now somewhat faded – former royal gardens in El-Urman Park, among splendid palms and a fascinating collection of conifers from around the world.

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Businesses represented were mostly from Cairo and the surrounding countryside. The breadth of items, covering everything from gardening equipment to seedlings, beekeeping paraphernalia to irrigation materials, was impressive and useful; normally we would have to travel all over to track them down.

Among the herbs were quantities of rosemary, thyme and oregano, but the selection was less extensive than last year. Seedlings, purchased by the plug, included aubergines, cabbages, capsicums, lettuces and tomatoes. I’m always interested in the packets of seeds: We usually buy basic seeds – coriander, dill, parsley, rocket – from a kind of general store or grocer’s shop, but more specialised seeds are harder to find. At the show, they come either commercially packaged or sorted into simple brown paper packets with handwritten labels:

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There were not so many fruit trees this year, as far as I could tell, but still there was a reasonable selection of citrus, mango, apple, peach, pear and so on. You can see bananas (which are not trees, but grasses) in the foreground here:

Fruit trees

But you have to be vigilant when you buy: Our pomegranate, lovely as she is, turned out to have been recently uprooted and placed in a suspiciously small container. At least it wasn’t an old tin formerly used for industrial glue or paint, which is common practice in Egypt! But this meant that the gardener had to be extra careful in easing her out of the pot and into the garden: More on this in a later post, as well as on the amazing cultural, historical and culinary story of the pomegranate tree.

 

 

“Fragrance blooms on pear wood bones”

Sun and moon divide the sky,

Fragrance blooms on pear wood bones:

Earth wakens with a sigh.

Wanderer revels on the path alone.

Tomorrow is World Festival of Poetry Day*, and for the occasion I’ve chosen to look at one of our most beautiful fruit trees: the pear. She is beautiful because she is currently in full flower, and because her tall stately shape delights with a surprisingly slender and discreet presence in our tiny orchard.

The pear does not stand up and whack me in the face like the untidy guava, with branches bending all over the place, nor does she shred my hands and arms when I approach her like the lemon/limes. There’s no need to feel wary when you approach a pear tree!

Meanwhile, the plum tree nearby is also blooming:

This is the lighter plum: the other, dark red plum, which is normally the first fruit tree to bloom in our garden, almost completely failed to flower this spring. Frustratingly I can’t identify any of the varieties as every single tree came without labels. As you may recall, with one we famously didn’t even know what kind of tree we had until it produced fruit – kumquats.

As I do my rounds checking how the trees are every day, I get the impression that our bees are spoilt for choice. They simply don’t know quite where to start! The orange tree is always a good option:

Orange blossom and bee

It would be nice to think that we may have orange blossom honey later on, but the reality is that it will be well mixed with borage, rosemary, rocket, broad bean, dill and possibly nasturtium flavours too. Do the bees have a favourite among all these? My observation is that rosemary is perhaps the main attraction but rocket runs it a close second. The borage is popular, but tends to be a quick stop as the flowers are small and well spaced: sort of take-away food “on the run”!

In sum, I think the garden is the finest way to celebrate poetry: It is a living poem in itself, ever-changing, never still for a moment, yet fascinatingly in harmony. Each morning there are new blossoms, soft tender shoots, seedlings bursting upwards through the soil. The effect on the soul is magical.

In their wonderful book “The Secret Life of Plants“, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird explored how much we really have in common with them: “Plants are living, breathing communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of soul …..bridesmaids at a marriage of physics and metaphysics”. Tomorrow morning’s garden round will be done with especial regard for my beautiful companions, the balm of my soul.

* Poem from “365 Tao, Daily Meditations” by Deng Ming-Dao

* World Festival of Poetry, as noted in my Italian Kitchen Calendar for 2017, which is a mine of information about gardening, fruit cultivation, cultural matters and poetry.

*”The Secret Life of Plants” by Tompkins and Bird, published by Harper

 

 

On not losing the plot…

January isn’t a good month for gardening in Egypt – and February usually begins in much the same vein. So it seemed a good opportunity to fly off and join some yogi friends in Bahrain to discuss, at a conference, how to face up to, and make the most of, these unstable and changing times.

At a previous yoga gathering, gardening had been one of the activities recommended for us to “make a difference”. Environmental campaigner Satish Kumar advised us: Don’t sit back and sigh and wish the world would change, but actively engage in shaping it as you would wish it to be.

Every time I go out in the garden to gather salad leaves or herbs, or a handful of broad beans in their pods for a quick, mood-lifting snack; or whenever I spot the hawks flying over the garden or a hoopoe digging for insects in the lawn, or the warblers bobbing in and out of our hedge: Then I remember his wise words, and I feel glad to have heard him speak.

Since returning from Manama I’ve been galvanised by a series of warm and sunny days and the sight of the first tentative leaf buds on the citrus trees, especially the satsuma which is in the sunniest spot; maybe also by the need to transplant seedlings into the raised beds or wherever else they are going to go. These are the few that actually germinated in pots on the upstairs balcony: sage, lavender, Thai basil and chamomile. The rest didn’t germinate at all, which means I’ve failed again with lemon balm, lemon grass etc.

I’ve spent the past few days cleaning the beds round the fruit trees and then spreading manure at the outer edge. Working at the rate of three trees per day, I’ve finished all but one citrus, our two pear trees and one plum. The satsuma (above left) was pruned earlier by removing some of the interior, crossing branches. The lemon (above right) was left to the gardener: he cut away a lot of the lower branches to give the orange scion light and air (i.e. a chance to grow!)  but I wish he’d been a bit more careful with the rest of the tree – I am deeply grateful for all the lemons it so generously gave us last year, and I note he has hacked away at the branches, leaving rough and torn edges, without clearing the interior properly – ugh!

I’m also clearing out the bed along the back hedge behind the raised beds with a view to adding Thai basil*, and maybe calendula along the front edge. The young rosemary plants previously placed there have established themselves. All were grown from cuttings taken from our irrepressible mother plant ‘Boris’. But I need flowering plants in front to give the border depth, colour and interest as well as to provide extra food for the beloved pollinators.

Also over the past few days, I have transplanted into RB4 young lettuce that were suffocating in a pot, close to a clutch of seedlings transplanted a few weeks ago. Others were squeezed into an empty patch in RB2, though there’s not much space as the heritage  mizuna is taking over:

Chamomile seedlings have been popped in with others sown directly into a corner of RB2 in the autumn – I haven’t had much luck with this herb but we have a few small plants, and hopefully there will be enough for some infusions later in the year.

It isn’t warm enough to sow summer crops such as courgettes and tomatoes. But I’m trying to get round this by filling pots with sand and soil and positioning them under plastic on the top balcony. After they have warmed up, and it only takes a day or two to create a tropical micro-climate, I can hopefully safely sow the seeds: Early courgette “Verde di Italia”, vine tomato “Chadwick Cherry” and vine salad tomato “Rose de Berne”. These, and the squash and aubergine seeds, are all heritage varieties from the Real Seed Catalogue.

So there is much more to come…

 

*A propos basil (rihaan in the Middle East, tulsi in India) staying among an Indian yogi community in Bahrain I came across all sorts of different tulsi teas, including one flavoured with rose and another with bergamot – “Tulsi Earl Grey”!  My favourite was an infusion made with tulsi and lemon grass from the garden with other flavourings: Mint, I think, and maybe cinnamon, and sweetened with honey.